the psychology of tantric practicePosted: January 18, 2013
A book I have just finished reading , The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra, by Rob Preece, has been so compelling that I felt I had to share a few thoughts of mine about it. I have not read a book that so successfully helped me to start putting Buddhist Tantra into some sort of overall context, especially within the cultural context that we have here in the West. Preece concentrates on comparing Buddhist Tantra with the psychology of the Jungian tradition of psychotherapy, and he does that very successfully, although I think it would also help greatly if Buddhist tantra were also put within the context of the wider world of Western psychology generally, especially within the emerging discipline of positive psychology, whose research findings in recent years are rapidly influencing the Western view of what facilitates the most positive mental states. Jung does not get as much publicity, I feel, as he deserves, which is a shame as his view of the mind is very subtle and nuanced, but he had, as Preece explains, a blind spot when it came to his view on Westerners’ ability to use meditation effectively. He was overly pessimistic on this, which is ironic as his psychological views are actually an asset in helping westerners to get an intellectual grasp on the deeper significance of tantric symbolism and how it can be integrated with the symbolism we are familiar with through our Western cultural heritage, which influences us greatly even if we are not consciously aware of that influence. Jung does a great job in exploring the archetypal images that come up time and again within Western culture and which reveal the unconscious drives and energies that influence our conscious thinking. Preece usefully links up some of the archetypes Jung explores with the archetypes that lie behind tantric symbolism. For example, Preece makes the interesting point that Heruka Chakrasambara is very similar to the roles played by Dionysus and Kernunnos in Western culture, and that the Western language of alchemical transformation is analogous to the symbolism of ‘generation stage’ tantra, especially with regards to the ‘inner offering’.
Preece makes the very valid point that Westerners practising Tantra may actually create problems for themselves if they do not have the necessary degree of psychological stability and that Western psychotherapy has much to contribute to help Westerners achieve this, especially as Eastern teachers of Tantra, according to Preece, often display a lack of understanding of the psychological complexes and problems that are familiar in Western societies. Tibetans may be very concerned about ‘spirits’ and ‘demons’ interfering with tantric practice, but Westerners are usually more concerned with dealing with memories of traumatic events or dealing with emotional issues arising in childhood, especially in their relationships with their parents.
I particularly liked Preece’s point about tantric practice having to be integrated into a deliberately cultivated sensitivity to the natural environment in which the practice is done. Tibetans certainly had a very keen sensitivity to how the energy forces within their local environment influenced, and were influenced, by the energy-winds within the human body, and that keeping the body in harmony with nature as it is experienced is a crucial part of successful tantric practice as well as ensuring that the individual feels an integral part of the surrounding world. Preece links this need for heightened nature sensitivity with a fascinating explanation of how mandalas work from a psychological perspective.
Anyway, Preece convinced me that making tantric practice come truly alive is very difficult unless it can be translated within one’s own understanding of how one’s psychological life, especially one’s emotional experience, works. And that understanding perhaps depends crucially upon cultivating an increasing sensitivity towards how tantric symbolism needs to be interpreted through ones’ own understanding and experience of the symbolism and archetypes of one’s own culture. It also needs, I think, a growing understanding of how one’s own experience of one’s immediate natural environment can be integrated with that tantric symbolism so that the mandala becomes a living manifestation within one’s life experience. Just jumping in and trying to impose an alien Tibetan tantric symbolism upon one’s mind without any kind of awareness of how one’s Shadow side could be dangerously and uncontrollably unleashed into conscious awareness seems to me now like reckless folly. And with that provocative claim, I take my leave – for now!